I truly had an interesting personal experience in cultural diversity last week as I cruised down the Danube with some German friends. My husband, a real estate broker, sold these Bavarian folk a home here in the USA over twenty years ago.
At that time they spoke barely a word of English, yet we were somehow able to bridge the language barrier with them. Perhaps it was with our body language. Perhaps it was with patient, slow communication of English words, which they mirrored with the German counterpart. However we orchestrated the communication, we became enduring friends and they quickly learned to speak our language. These dear friends bought us a cruise down the Danube river as a gift to reciprocate for the kindness we extended to them over the years. We were quick to accept such a generous offer. Who wouldn’t?
What we didn’t know at the time we accepted was that the cruise consisted of all German people. No one out of 170 passengers and 60 crew spoke English, other than our friends who gave us this gift. The Captain spoke only German. The Cruise Director spoke only German. We were the only American people on board. At the launch, we were out of the fold…and never could make an inroad to connect. Sometimes it was hard not to feel sorry for ourselves or feel angry at our perception of being “left out”.
We frequently didn’t know what was going on. We couldn’t understand important announcements, we missed entertaining events, we couldn’t laugh when something was funny to everyone else. We couldn’t interact with others and we felt isolated and lonely at times. We were sometimes frustrated at not being able to communicate our needs or get our questions answered.
It wasn’t the fault of the other passengers. They couldn’t communicate with us any better than we could communicate with them. But they had strength in their numbers and we carried the burden of the language barrier. For example, one night the Captain gave a little mini-concert with his guitar for the passengers. He approached us for feedback after he finished and I gave him the hand sign indicating “A-Okay”. He received the gesture offensively, thinking I was rating him with a “Zero” for his performance…Whoops!
The good news is that we got to learn, in real-time, the three different aspects of cultural diversity: 1) the concrete; 2)the behavioral; and, 3)the symbolic.
The concrete is the most visible and tangible level of culture, and includes the most surface–level dimensions such as clothes, music, food, games, etc . For example, we saw many men dressed in lederhosen, a customary native dress of Bavaria. The cuisine included lots of pork, potatoes and cabbage. The food tasted fine; but midway through the cruise, our American digestive systems began to yearn for a simple green salad.
We experienced the behavioral level of cultural diversity. This level clarifies how we define our social roles, the languages we speak, and our approaches to nonverbal communication. The handling of silverware is culturally very different. I became quite adept at working my fork and knife simultaneously while navigating around my dinner plate. Hugging as a greeting is rare and reserved for the most familiar of relationships. If you greet with a kiss, you kiss on both cheeks. I kept forgetting this and would be giving “half-kisses” that left my German friends bewildered.
The symbolic level of culture includes our values and beliefs. It can be abstract, but it is most often the key to how individuals define themselves. It includes value systems, customs, beliefs, mores, spirituality, religion, worldview, etc. German culture includes a staunch, stoic character and any sort of complaining seems to be frowned upon. Structure is very important and the expectation is often that one does not deviate from the existing plan. We learned about this on a number of occasions, but mostly poignantly once when we asked to change an established itinerary and we were quickly corrected to stick with the plan and not make a fuss.
I do not mention these details to be critical of the German experience. Cultural dissonance is to be expected in situations like this. We loved lots of features in our Danube experience. But perhaps the best thing we experienced was some true enlightenment about what it feels like to be culturally different and viewed as strangers among a homogeneous cultural group. I certainly have increased my awareness of and my empathy for cultural diversity.